From limited edition red hair-dryers to maple leaf-shaped beef burgers, just about every novelty promotion is being squeezed out of Canada 150 by corporate companies. Very few succeed at doing something that feels right, especially when the occasion itself is fraught with complex issues that reveal our truest identity: the parts that make us proud, and the truly vile parts of both our history and our current reality. When the fireworks fill the sky this weekend, what will we actually be celebrating?

To some, Canada 150 is a celebration of a country where our PM marches in the Pride parade; a celebration of a country that welcomes refugees from all over the world; a moment to acknowledge our breathtaking landscapes that span nearly 10,000 km from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

Sure, all those things are great, but Canada 150 also represents 150 years of oppression;  a reminder that this country began with mass genocide, rape, and abuse. No matter how much red and white swag we swarm the shelves with, we – as a society – cannot pretend these truths don’t exist. We cannot wave our flags and bake our cherry pies without acknowledging that evil played a role in birthing our nation.  

This weekend (barring the LCBO doesn’t strike) much of the country will be cracking open cans of Molson Canadian and doing cannon balls off a cottage dock, while some First Nation communities continue to wait for clean water.

Canada 150 is a moment for all of us to pause, look at ourselves honestly and carefully, and figure out what we are doing, where we are going, how we need to improve, and who we want to be. AGO’s Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood is an exhibit that allows us to lean in to those uncomfortable spaces and think about answers to those questions.

“At the heart of this exhibition is our fundamental belief that Canada is a dynamic work in progress,” says Andrew Hunter, who curated #EveryNowThenAGO with a team of invited local artists, activists and educators, including Anique Jordan and Quill Christie. “Through a variety of visual media, they are drawing attention to issues of absence , erasure and memory and asking creatively, ‘How do we move forward as a country?'”

While the exhibit is a response to this moment in time, Anique Jordan explains that the exhibit also explores much deeper notions that preceded Canada 150: “Political time, spiritual time, cultural time…the weight of time. Time as expansive and everlasting, as well as the timing of things that really did happen. This exhibit is a look at what 150 years really encompasses.”

While on a media preview tour, looking at a provocative piece by artists Camal Pirbhai and Camille Turner that references slavery in Canada, Hunter turned to the crowd and said, “Some people may find the works problematic or challenging…but that’s where we’re at.” He’s right: there’s no filter or cute Canada Day Instagram flat lay that can mask the reality of 150. This is a messy occasion, and to package it as a pretty red and white parcel is a denial of the truth.

The impressive photo (pictured above) by Meryl McMaster, an artist of Cree and European descent who graduated from OCAD, is a stunning image that shows Meryl standing on the edge of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Southern Alberta. Hunter explains that this is where traditionally, Indigenous people would drive the buffalo off the cliff during a hunt; however, in this photo, Meryl is walking along the ridge looking back at us. It is a glimpse into a powerful history, while also playing on the theme of walking a ridge of possibility, which is volatile but also full of discovery and hope. Let us ensure that we are all walking with our eyes wide open.

AGO’s Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood opens June 28th at 6pm and runs until December 10, 2017. A special performance will take place at AGO’s First Thursday on July 6th. Share your thoughts using #EveryNowThenAGO.